"With 140 characters, The Onion destroyed 19 years of good will," began Joe Garden, Thing X co-creator and former Onion Features Editor, at HuffPost Comedy's "Crossing The Line" panel at this year's SXSW festival. "And then they did something really offensive: they apologized."
Garden is of course talking about The Onion's most recent scandal: a tweet sent from the satirical publication's account during the 2013 Oscars referring to young actress Quvenzhané Wallis as "the C word," and the subsequent apology -- its first ever -- issued by CEO Steve Hannah on the site's Facebook page.
Garden took the apology personally, both as a former Onion employee who worked on a number of provacative articles including their post-9/11 issue, and as a consumer of comedy. He quoted Brooke Gladstone, who wrote, "Worrying about offending people drags us back to the lowest common denominator."
So, does apologizing for a joke really set comedy, or freedom of expression, back? Or as Garden put it, "Can we make a progress omelette without breaking a few 'c*nt' eggs?". To find out, Garden opened the discussion up to the panel which included comedian Eddie Pepitone, FX's "Totally Biased" star W. Kamau Bell and "Totally Biased" writer/producer Janine Brito.
The conversation started with a simple question: "What is the comedian's responsibility to his or her audience?" to which Pepitone gave an equally simple answer: "To be funny." But is it really that simple?
Bell agreed with Pepitone but noted that due to recent technological advances, comedians have an added responsibilty: owning up the fact that they are often speaking to the world when they perform, even if that isn't their intention. Although it is frowned upon, any audience member can record an in-progress joke or comedy club meltdown on a cell phone and upload it to YouTube, or take to Twitter to share an uncomfortable moment with the world.
"You're not just talking to the people who like you anymore," Bell said, citing the blogger who brought a Daniel Tosh rape "joke" into the public eye as an example. "Lenny Bruce could only offend the people in the room," Bell added.
One thing the entire panel could agree on is that audience members recording drop-in sets at clubs has changed the game. Bell quoted Chris Rock's analogy that the comedy club is "a gym, where comedians go to work out," and Pepitone coined his own: "I don't go into offices and record them doing their 'architecture' or whatever." Not only can it be an act of copyright infringement, but it's often the worst parts of shows that are leaked to the web.
"They always pull out the camera when it's a sh*t show," Brito added. "Yeah, no one ever saw that video of Michael Richards killing it," Bell joked.
Since audience behavior can only be controlled so much, Brito suggested that comedians help out by not being so surprised when their sets -- leaked or otherwise -- offend people.
"Just because someone is standing in front of a microphone doesn't mean they are immune to criticism," Brito said, adding that anyone who puts their thoughts and feelings out into the world should expect a reaction, whether it's positive or negative.
While Pepitone stands firm that apologizing for a comedy set -- given that it represents the thoughts, feelings and opinions of the performer -- is antithetical, but Bell doesn't think comedians are above apologies. Comedians are people, too, after all, but what often changes things is when comedians become the direct extensions of large corporations or networks, such as Gilbert Gottfriend with Aflac or Tracy Morgan for NBC. Both comedians came under fire for making offensive jokes, the former on Twitter and the latter on stage, and both issued public apologies. Would Gottfried, who has made a living for decades on crass and crude humor, or Morgan, who until Tina Fey put on primetime TV was never known for having an internal censor, have apologized if it weren't to play by their employers' rules?
Brito used Morgan's homophobic joke scandal to bring up the panel's last major point: the audience's responsibility to know who they are seeing perform and what type of humor they are going to be, for lack of a better word, subjected to. The people who attended Morgan's show in Tennessee might have been expecting Tracy Jordan, not Morgan, whose stand-up has never been known to be P.C.
"Do your research before going to a comedy show," Bell said, adding that people should know what kind of comic they're seeing just like they would a band or musician. "You wouldn't just say you're going to a 'music show' and not know if you're going to like what you're paying to see."
After an audience Q&A, one question remained that seemed to baffle everyone on the panel: What about "South Park"? As Pepitone noted, they have offended just about everyone under the sun and aren't constantly issuing apologies. People tend to give them a free pass, saying "That's just them." The same goes for "Family Guy." Are cartoons simply more disarming?
"All words have power, even if they're drawn by Koreans," Bell joked.